Barcelona makes a great location for a city break at the tail-end of a seemingly interminable British winter. To feel the sun on ones face and sand between the toes after months being enshrouded in coats, scarves and gloves is truly uplifting. The Ciutat Comtal offers a mine of cultural diversions from the fabulous Museo Picasso and Gaudi’s unmissable architectural legacy to the hustle and bustle of the Ramblas and the inimitable Boqueria market. It is a vibrant, visitor-friendly city and if you tire of sight-seeing you can make up a picnic, hire a bike and cycle out along the revitalised seafront. Don’t forget to pack one of Manuel Vásquez Montalaban’s ‘Pepé Carvalho’ mysteries if you want to get a passionate and insightful account of Catalonian cooking that will give you ample gastronomic inspiration.
Spain has justifiably garnered numerous accolades for its contemporary cuisine, spear-headed by Ferran Adrià’s ground-breaking El Bulli, but it would be criminal to overlook the simpler more traditional tapas which provides such versatile and rewarding epicurean enjoyment. Friends, colleagues, guide books and the lady whose apartment we rented all came up with the same recommendation – Cal Pep. So with a degree of inevitability we hot-footed it to number 8, Plaça des Olles as soon as we’d collected our keys.
You can book a table in the small restaurant at the rear of the establishment that Josep ‘Pep’ Manubens first opened in 1977 but the real action is out the front where a small file of diners, often accompanied by a phalanx of aspirant diners, sit at the bar and enjoy what must be on any aficionados short-list of the world’s tastiest tapas. There is a heavy emphasis on seafood and the service is frenetic and enthusiastic in equal measure. There are no menus and waiters serve you what you have spotted other people eating and admired or what they think you would like. There is nothing not to like. A bowl of baby squid with chickpeas was delicious. Ditto shavings of flash fried artichoke in the lightest of batters. Steamed razor clams with lemon wedges and olive oil – divine. And so it goes on: the tenderest calamari precede the most mouth-watering Ibérico ham followed by the sweetest scallops with a garlic dressing to die for. Nor must you overlook the tuna tartare. Everything is super-fresh and cooked before your eyes so you can enjoy the theatre of the preparation of your next dish while consuming its predecessor. Thirty six years on Pep is still at the forefront of proceedings rattling off instructions ten to the dozen pausing only to greet regulars and intervene when he thinks a dish needs tweaking.
Research divulged that there is an aspirational wine list studded with resonant vinous references but locals, almost exclusively, opt for the house white wine a zesty, citrus-edged Sumarroca Penedès Blanc de Blancs that weighs in at just 11.5% and is served by the glass at a very reasonable 1.95 euros.
There are only really two caveats to recommending this gem of restaurant. One is that you will, almost certainly, have to queue for quite some time before you are fed as its popularity outweighs the number of covers available. The other is that despite the modest wine prices a family of four foodies with healthy appetites can rack up a hell of a bill with alarming alacrity. That said, I can’t wait to go back. We had a brilliant time in Barcelona but Cal Pep was the highlight of the trip.